For months now, everything in MLS was new for Orlando City (5-5-5, 20 points). Now, though, the Lions are beginning to understand the intensity of league play at the highest level in the United States.
Every MLS match is tough, but once you begin playing the same teams over and over again, the dynamic changes. The story line all week prior to last weekend's D.C. United match was avoiding the three-game season sweep. Back in the end of May, it was revenge against the Columbus Crew.
All that said, the Lions seem to have become more comfortable, not less, as the season wears on, and seem a dramatically different squad than the one that drew the Montreal Impact 2-2 in Canada. In that match, Orlando gave up a penalty kick on a clumsy handball in the box, and let in the second goal on a defensive gaffe. With Tally Hall back healthy between the pipes and City riding a six-game unbeaten streak in all competitions, Orlando has come a long way since that March match-up.
Of course, things aren't so bad in Montreal (4-5-2, 14 points) either. After a miserable 2014 season that many in Montreal wish they could forget, the Impact were the surprise contender from MLS for the CONCACAF Champions League early this year. That run ended with Montreal the runner-up after losing to Mexico's Club America in the final, yet the momentum seems to have carried into the MLS season. While Montreal technically sits in eighth in the Eastern Conference, its points per game actually indicate the Impact have been a bit better that that.
While things may be going slightly better in Montreal than they appear, things are undeniably going great in Orlando. The Lions are unbeaten in their last six competitive matches, and they've climbed all the way up to third in the table (fourth by PPG). All things considered though, this is an important match for two teams that may well be fighting for one of the last couple of playoff spots toward the end of the season.
The Lions remain fairly healthy, and fatigue shouldn't be a significant problem either, after nearly all of the starters were rested against the Charleston Battery in U.S. Open Cup play on Wednesday night. Guys like Kaká and Brek Shea will have certainly benefited from the rest, and the team will look for them to be back at 100% effort in this one. Luke Boden, Eric Avila, and Rafael Ramos each played significant minutes last Sunday and on Wednesday, so it remains to be seen exactly how they'll be used against the Impact.
Perhaps most importantly, forward Cyle Larin should be back in the starting XI after two matches for the Canadian National Team. He scores for his country, he scores for the Lions, but can he score against Montreal?
It will also be worth watching whether or not Head Coach Adrian Heath asks wingers Shea and Avila to tuck inside again, as they did successfully against D.C. United in their last league match. This runs the risk of leaving the Lions too narrow, but against D.C., Boden and Ramos were able to create width from their fullback roles. Of course, Heath may also opt to push his wingers back out wide, in an effort to surprise the Impact.
It was Orlando City short-handed when the teams met earlier in March, but now the Impact are the side dealing with a rash of injuries. Dominic Oduro should be just nearing full health again, so there's a decent chance he starts on the right wing. The Canadian side will still be missing emerging star Dilly Duka though, along with veterans Justin Mapp and Kenny Cooper.
While both teams primarily use a 4-2-3-1 formation, Montreal prefers a much more wide-open and direct style of play than Orlando City. Impressively, there have been 21 total goals scored in the Impact's last seven matches, including giving up three goals in matches against Chicago and woeful New York City FC. Montreal will send balls forward to Jack McInerney, and it will be up to Aurelien Collin and Sean St. Ledger to do better than the Lions' back line did last time in Montreal.
What to Watch For:
Cyle Larin and the Narrow Wingers: Heath threw a curveball last week against D.C. United by pinching his wingers further in than he had all season. That was with Pedro Ribeiro up front though, as Larin was off with his Canadian pals.
Will Heath opt for the same tactics against the Impact, or revert to the familiar, wider setup that had served Larin so well in the last month? Despite the success, the Lions are still a team that doesn't quite have a clear offensive identity as of yet. With Larin back in the fold, this may be a week to assess just where the Lions' attack stands.
Tally Hall: The unsung hero of the Lions' unbeaten run has been keeper Tally Hall, who returned from ACL surgery just over one month ago today. He hasn't been called on to make many spectacular saves, but his influence on the team as a leader has been clear.
While I didn't personally think Donovan Ricketts played badly in his months as the starter, you could argue that the previous meeting between these two teams was his worst outing. It looked like he had the opportunity to save the opening penalty, and then he was caught in no-man's land on McInerney's chip. Can Hall be the difference for Orlando City this weekend?
Say what you will about Montreal, but they know how to score goals at home. Over their last three homes matches, they've scored eight of them.
Still, Orlando is streaking, while Montreal just got spanked 3-1 in Yankee Stadium by Manchester City 2. Heath riled fans by benching his starters against the Battery on Wednesday, but they'll be singing his praises as a fresh Shea and Kaká run wild on the Impact.
Prediction: 3-1 Orlando City
What are your thoughts headed into Orlando's rematch with Montreal? Let us know in the comment section. Be sure to join in on our Match Day Open Thread 90 minutes (or so) prior to kickoff!
The match is scheduled for Saturday, June 20, at 8 p.m. It will be televised locally on My65/Sun Sports and on the Fox Sports GO app. It will be broadcast on Real Radio 104.1 FM and La Grande 1030 AM.